One Direction is a monolith. The boys are easy to write about, and impossible to fully dissect: as the New York Times will tell you, they are the first post-modern boy band, largely an entity more than a musical act. Their power is fandom, the unrivaled ability to give off the illusion of access. For pop fans of a certain age, they are ever-present, but removed. Directioners feel that they know the young millionaires, and 1D wouldn't have it any other way...at least, they couldn't have it any other way. Zayn Malik didn't want it that way.
The group's only member of color had the most difficult time acclimating from the very beginning. The music One Direction was told to record originated from a pop-rock camp, and Malik preferred R&B. He was always relegated to the role of the "creative, artistic" one, a complicated title with a problematic, not-so-subtle othering message—by making him the "shy guy," he was made silent.
In the days leading up to Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction, something became clear. Malik began taking ownership of the sheepish persona thrust upon him and embraced total apathy. In their 2014 live shows, Malik's blasé affectations were impossible to ignore. He rarely smiled, he moved meekly. He missed a major Today Show appearance. He effectively checked out. It seemed to be more than just the exhaustion of 1D's 24/7 schedule; that wear-and-tear was easily visible on the faces of all five guys. He was exhausted by his own life, and on March 25, 2015, he left. For good.
It was a heartbreaking and somewhat predictable move. Malik said he wanted to try and be a normal 22-year-old for a while, which is possibly the most disingenuous thing he's ever said—the dude has the face of a prince and the voice of an angel, so he'll never be a normal anything. It was a matter of weeks before we learned he was making music again... this time, on his own terms.
Or, as much of his own terms that a corporate music industry will allow. Becoming a solo artist probably feels less claustrophobic, but there are still powers at be. Leaving a boy band is a skill Justin Timberlake has perfected, and it's a different kind of scheme Malik is now operating in. He must be sexy; he must be adult. It just so happens that those are also all the things he wants to be.
In philosophy, individuation is the process of something recognizing that they are distinct from other elements in the world; in psychology, it's when a baby realizes they're a baby, not an extension of all the other things they can see and feel and touch. Loosely, this ideology can be applied to adolescence: You individuate when you separate from your parents, you start to discover who you are and the kind of person you want to become. In normative Western thinking, it's going to college, moving out, experimenting with life (and maybe some other things). Boy band members do not get to individuate.
There are a lot of reasons for this, the most obvious being that a pop star in a boy band or girl group assumes a profession that becomes a whole of their identity and everything that they do. Age is also an element—One Direction began when the Brits were teenagers and ended (or went on hiatus) when the guys entered their early 20s. In that time, their squeaky-clean image didn't allow them to express what it means to be a young adult. Zayn's departure meant he finally got to individuate; he could be open and honest about stuff. And to make up for lost time, most of that expression deals with sex, love and smoking weed.
The intentionality there is to appear more grown-up, which Malik is, but also to isolate the young audience that birthed Zayn, One Direction and its members' careers. Since Malik's journey to self-discovery came later in life (and in a very public way), it feels like an information overload, like the idea of someone telling themselves they're cool until they actually believe it. Lucky for Zayn, everyone does, because for once, he isn't silent. Even if this newfound authenticity is an illusion, the illusion is authentic. It'll be interesting to watch how he navigates the rest of his maturation. We remain optimistic—at this moment, raising an adult beverage in Zayn's honor feels right.